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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published August 26 2010

North Dakota college enrollments grow despite demographic challenges

Years ago, North Dakota demographer Richard Rathge predicted doom and gloom for the state’s colleges and universities.

With the pool of high school graduates in the region shrinking, Rathge expected to see enrollment declines on the state’s campuses.

But as area colleges found ways to increase their enrollments despite the demographic challenges, Rathge is happy to admit he was wrong.

“I’m very pleased that I have to eat crow and indicate that my initial projections of what would happen to the university system have not turned out to be true,” said Rathge, director of the State Data Center at North Dakota State University.

Double-edged sword

The regional demographics for the pool of students heading to college are bleak.

North Dakota had 10,850 high school graduates in 1970.

In 2009, that pool shrunk to 7,005.

On top of that, the percent of North Dakota high school grads who choose to leave the state for college is on the rise.

In fall 1998, 16 percent of North Dakota first-year college students left the state to attend college.

In 2008, the percent leaving the state climbed to 28 percent.

“Not only are we shrinking the pie, but we’re also increasing the sliver of the pie that’s going elsewhere,” Rathge said.

As he gave presentations to university officials eight years ago about the looming challenges, Rathge thought the bar was set too high for the state’s campuses.

As this year’s early enrollment figures reflect, however, the campuses found ways to respond.

North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota are reporting record enrollments this fall.

Valley City State University has its largest freshman class since 1988. Mayville State University’s early enrollment figure is seven students shy of setting an all-time record.

North Dakota State College of Science is seeing steady growth in its programs in Wahpeton and new offerings in Fargo.

Campuses in Moorhead – facing similar demographic challenges in western Minnesota – also are seeing strong enrollment growth.

“It’s extremely impressive,” Rathge said. “As a demographer, I’m amazed.”

New initiatives

North Dakota’s Higher Education Roundtable, formed in 1999, gave the university system a clear directive, said Michel Hillman, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

“The high school demographics are pretty depressing,” Hillman said. “If you sit back and wait for the students to come to you, then we’re probably going to systematically go around beginning to turn lights off.”

North Dakota’s campuses responded by creating new programs, recruiting out-state and international students and expanding online and other distance education methods.

For example, Valley City State introduced a new fisheries and wildlife major in 2005 that has more than doubled in size since last year.

The campus also added new athletic programs that contribute to the enrollment growth.

“Academically and athletically, we’ve got a lot of new offerings for students,” said VCSU President Steve Shirley.

The university system also expanded graduate programs and began working more closely with high schools to offer dual-credit courses, Hillman said.

The solution mainly came down to providing students with more access, Hillman said.

“There was no silver bullet,” he said. “I think it was a change in culture that reinvigorated all 11 campuses to respond to state needs.”

Continuing challenges

The challenge facing North Dakota’s campuses isn’t over.

Although birth rates are rebounding, colleges will still need to counter declining high school graduating classes for the immediate future, Rathge said.

Hillman said the university system plans to continue expanding online education.

Campuses also are working on more deliberate efforts to recruit adult students, Hillman said.

“You can’t rest on your laurels. Technology continues to evolve, student needs, employer needs continue to evolve,” Hillman said. “We need to make sure our connection to state needs continues.”

While he celebrates the success of the university system, Rathge cautions that decision-makers need to continue working to counter the challenges.

“If anyone would sit back, you would see a backsliding that would take your breath away,” Rathge said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590